Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery

Words by
Fiona Sims

19th June 2019

At its historical HQ, Bombay Sapphire nurtures 10 unique botanicals that flavour its famous gin, as a sensory tour of this stunning, sustainable setting reveals

Always pour your tonic over the back of a spoon — it preserves the bubbles,” explains mixologist Ashley Haines. He’s one of Bombay Sapphire’s brand advocacy hosts and we’ve signed up for The Gin Cocktail Masterclass (£45), followed by The Self Discovery Experience (£16) at its award-winning distillery in Hampshire.

This immersion into the nation’s favourite spirit takes place in an impossibly beautiful valley on the doorstep of the North Wessex Downs, reached by narrow country lanes that weave through ancient woodland and feel a million miles away from the Big Smoke. But in fact it’s just under an hour by train from London Waterloo, followed by a short 10-minute ride on the gin bus, as we call it (a Bombay Sapphire-branded bus that picks you up and drops you back to the two nearest stations at Overton and Micheldever). 

Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery
Examples of Bombay Sapphire's unique botanicals

You thought Bombay Sapphire Gin originated in the north of England? You’re not wrong — Warrington in Cheshire, to be exact. But it outgrew its northern home and when the brand’s owner Bacardi found Laverstoke Mill with a heritage stretching back as far as the Domesday Book, its future was set. Now every single drop of Bombay Sapphire is produced here — not that you’d know it from the leafy, historical and impressively sustainable setting.

Back at the masterclass, Haines introduces us to the art of mixology, from the different flavours in Bombay Sapphire through to the wide variety of cocktails it can make. Then, we try our hands at crafting two cocktails ourselves: we’re allowed to experiment by first making a Gimlet and then turning it into a Gin Sour, choosing from a selection of seasonal cordials and citrus fruits, before tackling the brand’s signature Laverstoke, with flavours of elderflower, vermouth and ginger ale.

Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery
10 cocktails have been created to show Bombay Sapphire at its best

Then it’s time for the tour. We allow an hour and a half to work our way around the heritage buildings, Dry Room and stills, discovering that Laverstoke Mill rose to prominence in the 1700s when one Henry Portal, a French Huguenot, purchased the mill to create high-quality paper and was later awarded  the contract to make bank notes for the Bank of England. The family continued to make bank notes until 1963, when it needed to re-locate and modernise.

The mill later fell into disrepair, until it was rescued and spectacularly renovated by Bombay Sapphire, preserving the Victorian and Georgian buildings, with a little help from famed designer Thomas Heatherwick (he of the Routemaster et al). Heatherwick Studio’s two glasshouses, sitting on the banks of the River Test, which runs through the property, is one of the highlights of the visit. The glasshouses soar above the crystal clear waters, which teem with trout and grayling. They house the 10 botanicals used to flavour the gin: one set to the balmy temperature and humidity of the tropics; the other with a drier, more Mediterranean feel.

Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery
Different ingredients ready to be tested in The Dry Room

The former showcases ingredients such as West African peppercorn, Grains of Paradise, which adds a touch of heat to the gin, and the aromatic cinnamon-like spice of the Indo-Chinese cassia bark. The latter houses key botanicals such as juniper and coriander.

The sensory journey continues in the Dry Room. This is where we really get to play, sniffing and rubbing the different botanicals, broken down into 22 glass aroma jars, crushing coriander in the pestle and mortar to release the scent, nibbling on fiery cubeb berries, and dabbing our fingers in powdered orris root, noting our favourites as the guides stand by to mark our cards for later, which helps us to select our end-of-tour cocktail.Then we are escorted to the Dakin Still House, turning our phones off as instructed before entering in case of combustion.

Every single drop of Bombay Sapphire is produced in this impressively sustainable setting 

There, we get up close and personal with two giant copper Carter Head stills, which are held in such high regard (one has parts dating back 100 years) that they even have names — Thomas and Mary, an homage to Bombay Sapphire’s original creators. The stills are magnificent, with swan necks that swoop out of the top to aid that all-important vapour infusion.

Where ordinary gins boil their botanicals directly in the spirit, Bombay Sapphire gin uses the vapour infusion method, which involves suspending the 10 botanicals above the spirit in perforated copper baskets during distillation. That way, we learn, as the heated vapours rise they’re gently infused with all the rich aromatic flavours the botanicals release, resulting in a smoother, more complex taste.

We have Mary Dakin back in 1831 to thank for this particular invention. A relative of the founder of Bombay gin’s original recipe, Thomas Dakin, it was her idea to adapt the still to incorporate the copper baskets. It’s gratifying to learn that there’s still a woman in charge today — Dr Anne Brock, who leads the team of 14 distillers at Laverstoke Mill.

Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery
The giant copper Carter Head stills

The tour finishes with a complimentary cocktail, one of 10 devised to show off Bombay Sapphire at its best (such as the Secret English Garden, flavoured with apple, ginger and lemon thyme), which are sipped on the sunny riverside terrace of its Mill Bar. We also make time for a charcuterie platter at the café. Newly opened in June, the café is housed in the mill’s renovated traditional workers’ cottages and dishes up delectable locally sourced fare for breakfast and lunch.

There’s just time for a quick visit to The Gin Shop for supplies before boarding the bus to head back home, knowing that we will never look at a G&T in quite the same way again.

Natural selection: Inside the Bombay Sapphire distillery
Time for one more cocktail?

Please book all experiences online in advance at: Bombay Sapphire Distillery, London Road, Whitchurch, Hampshire, RG28 7NR